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Christopher Steiner’s intriguing idea that there can be an upside to the steady rise in gasoline prices is set out in his book “$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better.”

An Evanston resident and a writer for Forbes Magazine, Mr. Steiner ties the material in each chapter to the rising gas prices the author foresees, beginning with the $4 chapter and continuing in $2 increments to the $20 chapter. He wants to show that these dreaded increases may have some positive long-term effects. Much of the book’s interest lies in this counterintuitive assumption.

The book also suggests that some “deglobalization” is in the future.

Mr. Steiner shows the enormous wide-ranging impact rising gas prices will have (and have had). Eating and traveling are the most basic of the topics he addresses.

” The price of oil – and thus, gasoline – affects our lives to a degree few realize,” says Mr. Steiner. “It’s not just the BP or Shell portion of your Visa bill. It’s the bricks in your walls, the plastic in your refrigerator, the asphalt on your roads, the shingles on your roof, the synthetic rubber in your ball. With every penny that gasoline moves up, so, too, does the price of most things we consume,” he says.

Mr. Steiner looks on rising gas prices as an opportunity and a challenge. For example, driving and flying less will result in less CO2 emissions and less pollution. But far-flung family members and businesses will be challenged. Some really like their SUVs and Jet Skis. And the loss of Walmart will surely be hard for those shoppers who depend on its low prices.

When gas prices went to $4 and over in 2008, that increase almost displaced the weather as the major topic of discussion. A positive result was that Prius sales soared and more people took public transportation. But it also meant hardship for many people.

The $6 chapter on the history and future of SUVs focuses on the benefits of fewer SUVs.

“The last two decades have featured a collision of storms, economic and societal, that have shaped Americans’ tastes and stretched the limits of consumption. Some of the cheapest oil in history coincided with the rise of SUVs, which engorged the bigger-fatter-better trend to an exponential degree here in the United States. Our society evolved from being one of savers, scrimpers and pragmatists to being one of flaunters, competitors, and cravers.”

Mr. Steiner reminds us about the “light truck loophole,” which meant that SUVs did not need to meet federal fuel economy laws.

“SUVs, clearly, are passenger vehicles. Anything with eight seats and twenty-seven cupholders is not a light truck,” he says.

Finally, his experts and their numbers show that fewer SUVs and pickup trucks will mean “fewer accidents and fewer people dead.”

The $6 chapter is also of interest to municipal governments and school districts. Rising gas prices play havoc with their budgets because of the fuel efficiency of garbage trucks (2.8 mpg) and school buses (6 mpg).

At $6 per gallon, even policing methods will be affected by higher gas prices. Police will go back to patrolling on the streets, to save on fuel costs. Mr. Steiner has examples from communities where this has benefitted the community. He mentions the Chicago police who now ride Segways and horses: The more approachable the patrolman, the more effective he or she can be.

In the $10 chapter Mr. Steiner asserts that Jet Skis and other recreational gasoline-users will gradually disappear (for the “better” for the folks who never liked them in the first place).

The $14 chapter has interesting previews of how difficult it will become to maintain roads and highways, leading to more toll roads. Mr. Steiner discusses the history and probable future of asphalt, “the murky tarry gunk that’s left over at the bottom of the refining vats when all the kerosene, gasoline, and diesel fuel has been skimmed off.” (Laura Ingalls Wilder gets recognition in the book for her close observation of asphalt in 1894.)

In that chapter, Mr. Steiner also gets to the Walmart distribution system, which is so heavily dependent on transportation that he does not see that method of merchandising lasting. He foresees the love affair with cheap stuff ending or being curtailed.

“Incessant packaging, boxes galore, plastic doodads, knickknacks, and detritus—it seems as if half the junk coming out of China accessorizes or packages the original junk they were making. The combined pressures of expensive shipping and the shrinking American house will mean that we will actually want and value the stuff we choose to keep.”

Just as carbon emissions may be reduced during a recession (positive), Mr. Steiner says that higher gas prices may result in less pollution from planes, cars and trucks (also positive.) He does not directly address the ongoing recession, although he does maintain that the changes he foresees do not necessarily mean fewer jobs, but rather a redistribution of them.

Mr. Steiner ends the book with a plug for nuclear power, suggesting that it should be considered a “green energy.” Many people would dispute that nuclear “will change our lives for the better.” But the rest of the book does let us look at the implications of a future with much more expensive gas in our lives.


Citizens for a Greener Evanston is sponsoring a lecture and book signing by local author Christopher Steiner on Tues. Jan. 26 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the Firehouse Grill, 750 Chicago Ave.

Ellen Galland

Ellen Galland has had an architectural practice in Evanston since 1983. For more than 20 years, she has written articles for the RoundTable, including the column “Ask An Architect" and "The Green Column"...